17640 East Nine Mile Road
Eastpointe, Michigan 48021
For Info, or to Donate Memorabilia
Email: Info@APBAHistoricalSociety.org

- Library -
BLACK SUNDAY:
UNLIMITED HYDROPLANE RACING'S DARKEST DAY - PART II

By Fred Farley - APBA/HYDRO-PROP Unlimited Historian

The anxiously awaited debut of the cabover MISS BARDAHL had to be put on hold at Tampa on account of a gearbox that kept overheating. But the advanceword on the new Green Dragon was favorable. According to crew chief LeoVanden Berg, the boat ran quite well in tests and could corner at over 100. (This was at a time when most Unlimiteds could do 175 or more on thestraightaway, but were unable to exceed 90 in the turns.)

This was good news for designer Ron Jones. His fervent hope was for the 1966 MISS BARDAHL to be a trendsetter in the tradition of SLO-MO-SHUN IV, which his father had introduced so successfully in 1950. Construction of the cabover BARDAHL had actually been completed the previous year. She would have raced in 1965 but for a delay in the arrival of component parts. The boat had experienced difficulty in spring testing. She had carried too much weight in the rear end. But the crew had shifted some of the weight forward to help alleviate this problem. Now, at long last, MISS BARDAHL was ready to enter competition.

Heading into Washington, D.C., the odds-on favorite had to be NOTRE DAME. After having been a bridesmaid but never a bride so many times in the recent past, the Shamrock Lady was certainly overdue for a win. Owner Shirley McDonald had fond feelings about the Potomac River race site. It was here where her father's boats had won in 1935, 1937, and 1940 with Clell Perry and Dan Arena as drivers. With two of the fleet's toughest competitors( MISS U.S. and SMIRNOFF) temporarily off the circuit, most observers confidently predicted that come Sunday, NOTRE DAME would take the President's Cup trophy home. And so she did, but under well-known tragic circumstances.

Thirteen of the boats which appeared at Tampa made the trek to Washington. They were joined by the Detroit-based MISS DIXI COLA, handled by Fred Alter. Driving assignments from the previous week remained the same with Don Wilson continuing in his role as MISS BUDWEISER relief pilot. {Wilson had won the 1958 President's Cup with MISS U.S. I.}

Heats 1-A, 1-B, and 1-C were run on Saturday, June 18. The first-place finishers were Sterett in MISS CHRYSLER CREW, Manchester in NOTRE DAME, and Musson in MISS BARDAHL respectively. Twenty-four hours later, of the three Saturday winners, only Sterett remained alive. In notching Heat I-A, the auto-powered MISS CHRYSLER CREW fooled the skeptics that predicted she wouldn't be competitive. Sterett outran Mira Slovak and TAHOE MISS, 99.337 to 99.228. Bob Fendler was a distant third with WAYFARERS CLUB LADY, followed by MY GYPSY, while Jim McCormick and MISS MADISON failed to finish.

Manchester and NOTRE DAME lucked out with an easy draw in Heat 1-B. Rex checked in first at an unhurried 96.826, the slowest winning speed of the weekend. The lesson of the previous Sunday on the matter of total elapsed time had apparently made no impression on Manchester. A distant-running Jerry Schoenith and GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL finished second, ahead of MISS DIXI COLA, while Walt Kade and SAVAIR'S MIST failed to finish. The new MISS BARDAHL, running in competition for the first time, justified the faith of her owner, driver, and designer. The Green Dragon dominated section 1-C and posted the fastest heat (101.218) and lap (102.975) of the entire race. The crew had feared that the 8000-pound craft would be hard on engines. But this wasn't the case in Heat 1-C. MISS BARDAHL handled the Potomac River beautifully, an instant contender, just as TIGER TOO had been. The much-maligned cabover concept of Ron Jones all of a sudden had credibility.

Far behind the victorious Dragon, Wilson in MISS BUDWEISER and Warner Gardner in MISS LAPEER battled spectacularly for second place. Wilson took it, 95.238 to 95.026, while Norm Evans and $ BILL trailed in fourth. A crowd estimated at 40,000 turned out for the Sunday heats. Weather and water conditions were the closest thing to perfect. MISS MADISON had withdrawn. So, the rest of the field was consolidated into two sections of six boats each for Heats 2-A and 2-B.

Most people seemed upbeat after the successful series of Saturday heats. But Bob Carver, the dean of boat racing action photographers, felt strangely troubled. It was nothing that he could define. But something warned Carver that Sunday's racing would not go well. Although Heat 2-A turned out to be brilliant.

Wilson and MISS BUDWEISER held off a formidable challenge from Sterett and MISS CHRYSLER CREW in one of the more aggressive contests in Thunderboat history. Sterett went all out after Wilson for four dynamic laps as the two powerhouses tore around the 2 1/2-mile oval. These were a couple of champion Mid-West Limited drivers, showing the fans what Unlimited racing is all about. BUDWEISER maintained first-place throughout, but CHRYSLER CREW was only a heartbeat behind.

A mechanical malfunction eventually halted Sterett's valiant drive for the lead. MISS CHRYSLER CREW then faded to sixth and last. But Wilson knew that he'd been in a boat race. MISS BUDWEISER averaged 98.468 for the 15 miles. TAHOE MISS inherited second place at 95.759, followed by MISS LAPEER, $ BILL, MY GYPSY, and MISS CHRYSLER CREW in that order.

The victory in Heat 2-A brought BUDWEISER's point total to 700, compared to 600 for TAHOE MISS. In order to surpass MISS BUDWEISER, both MISS BARDAHL and NOTRE DAME would have to win Heat 2-B.

Once again, it was Musson versus Manchester, the Mantle and Maris of boat racing, intense rivals out on the race course; close personal friends off of it. Their families often fished and cruised together in the San Juans on their pleasure crafts. Their wives, Betty Musson and Evelyn Bardahl Manchester, were also friends.

It was at the President's Cup in 1959 where Ron Musson had qualified as an Unlimited driver. But despite Ron's many victories, the President's Cup was one award that had consistently eluded his grasp. The crowd, which included Musson's teenage son Robert, tensed in anticipation as the field for Heat 2-B took to the water. The starting gun fired. MISS BARDAHL and NOTRE DAME exited the first turn together and charged down the backstretch. Once again, the cabover creation of Ron Jones was holding its own in the acid test of competition, as Musson raced full-tilt with NOTRE DAME.

The boats rounded the second turn, near National Airport, and ran head-to-head back down the front straightaway toward the completion of lap one. Then, according to Jones, the MISS BARDAHL's propeller sheared off. This caused the prop shaft to twist into a corkscrew. The bow pitched skyward out of control. The Green Dragon slammed down hard and disintegrated, directly in front of the judges' stand.

The race announcer screamed, "It broke in two! The boat broke in two!" MISS BARDAHL had indeed broken cleanly just behind the cockpit.

Rex Manchester, unaware of the accident, continued racing down into the next turn. Only when NOTRE DAME entered the backstretch did Rex see the red flare, signaling postponement. Musson was found floating face down. The boat that had debuted so promisingly the day before was a shattered wreck with the cockpit area completely destroyed. This was 1966; not until 1986 would the F-16 fighter plane safety canopy, which likely could have saved Ron, be introduced into Unlimited racing.

Musson, age 38, was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital. The man, widely regarded by hydroplane historians as the all-time greatest Unlimited driver, belonged to the ages. Not since Bob Hayward in 1961 had death visited Thunderboat racing. It was the first President's Cup fatality since Billy Frietag, driver of MISS PHILADELPHIA, a Gold Cup Class boat, in 1931.

Ron Jones blamed the propeller for the crash, although MISS BARDAHL crew member Dixon Smith speculated that the boat may possibly have struck a log. There was no way to tell what had really happened, although everyone seemed to have a different opinion about it. But there could be no doubt of the end-result. The sport had lost its most prominent personality.

Betty Musson learned of her husband's passing from Evelyn Manchester. Rex had called from Washington. Evelyn went over to the Musson home to console Betty. It was there, a few hours later, that Evelyn Manchester would learn of her own husband's death.

Back at the race site, the MISS BARDAHL pit crew picked up the pieces, while chief referee Bill Newton ordered a rerun of Heat 2-B. But a distraught Jerry Schoenith would have no part of it and relinquished the seat in GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL to team manager Bill Cantrell.

The re-run of Heat 2-B was itself stopped. MISS DIXI COLA came to an abrupt halt while chasing NOTRE DAME and WAYFARERS CLUB LADY down the first backstretch. An overanxious course judge fired off a signal flare just as NOTRE DAME was about to finish lap one.

For the re-re-run, Cantrell pursuaded Schoenith to re-claim the GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL cockpit. Jerry went out and finished third behind NOTRE DAME andSAVAIR'S MIST and ahead of WAYFARERS CLUB LADY. Manchester posted a winning speed of 97.192 with the rest of the field far astern.

This brought NOTRE DAME's point total to 800. Manchester led MISS BUDWEISER by 100 points going into the Final Heat. But Rex's lead in total elapsed time was only two seconds.

The NOTRE DAME team, then, had two options. They could finish first in the Final and win the race outright. Or, they could finish second to Don Wilson and tie the MISS BUDWEISER on points. The winner would then be determined on the basis of total elapsed time. NOTRE DAME would have to finish within two seconds of MISS BUDWEISER in order to claim the President's Cup.

For the second week in a row, Manchester's slow performance in Heat One had come back to haunt him.

Joining NOTRE DAME and MISS BUDWEISER in the Final Heat were TAHOE MISS, GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL, MISS CHRYSLER CREW, and MISS LAPEER. From the standpoint of speed, it was anybody's boat race. Of the six finalists, CHRYSLER CREW had the fastest competition lap of the weekend at 102.506, followed by BUDWEISER at 101.351, NOTRE DAME at 100.671, TAHOE MISS at 100.446, GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL at 96.983, and MISS LAPEER at 96.567.

A voice over the public address system at the five-minute gun confirmed what was already obvious--that Ron Musson had died. There were tears in Wilson's eyes as he steered MISS BUDWEISER away from the dock. In the 1950s, Musson and Wilson had raced Limiteds together on the Mid-West Inboard circuit. Don vowed to "win the race for Ron."

Manchester sat motionlessly in the NOTRE DAME cockpit. The five-minute gun fired, and there was still no movement from Rex as the boat drifted aimlessly away from the dock. Finally, at the last possible moment, Manchester cranked the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. NOTRE DAME roared to life and headed for the race course.

At the two previous Unlimited Class fatalities in the 1961 Silver Cup (Detroit) and the 1951 Gold Cup (Seattle), the races were cancelled and not resumed with the winners determined on the basis of points scored in preliminary heats. But drivers at the 1966 President's Cup all voted to continue racing, a decision that would later be criticized.

The boats came around for the start of the Final Heat with MISS BUDWEISER in lane one and NOTRE DAME in lane two. MISS CHRYSLER CREW, TAHOE MISS, and MISS LAPEER occupied lanes three, four, and five respectively with GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL failing to start. Wilson and Manchester crossed the starting line together and stayed together through the first turn. MISS BUDWEISER thundered down the backstretch in first place with NOTRE DAME close behind. Manchester found some extra fire in the engine room and pulled along side Wilson as the two neared the National Airport turn.

MISS BUDWEISER was running rock steady, but NOTRE DAME was starting to get out of attitude. Manchester, nevertheless, kept going at top speed. BUDWEISER backed off slightly to set up for the turn, but NOTRE DAME kept the power on in hopes of coming out of the turn first. NOTRE DAME became airborne, bounced on the left sponson, then on the right sponson, and then hooked uncontrollably into lane one, just as MISS BUDWEISER reached the same spot.

A photographer from LIFE MAGAZINE captured the moment of impact: an explosion of water and boat pieces with the lifeless body of Don Wilson hurtling through the air. MISS BUDWEISER's bow had speared the underside of NOTRE DAME. When the spray subsided, nothing remained of the two boats. Both had already sunk to the bottom of the Potomac.

The anxiously awaited debut of the cabover MISS BARDAHL had to be put on hold at Tampa on account of a gearbox that kept overheating. But the advanceword on the new Green Dragon was favorable. According to crew chief LeoVanden Berg, the boat ran quite well in tests and could corner at over 100. (This was at a time when most Unlimiteds could do 175 or more on thestraightaway, but were unable to exceed 90 in the turns.)

This was good news for designer Ron Jones. His fervent hope was for the 1966 MISS BARDAHL to be a trendsetter in the tradition of SLO-MO-SHUN IV, which his father had introduced so successfully in 1950. Construction of the cabover BARDAHL had actually been completed the previous year. She would have raced in 1965 but for a delay in the arrival of component parts. The boat had experienced difficulty in spring testing. She had carried too much weight in the rear end. But the crew had shifted some of the weight forward to help alleviate this problem. Now, at long last, MISS BARDAHL was ready to enter competition.

Heading into Washington, D.C., the odds-on favorite had to be NOTRE DAME. After having been a bridesmaid but never a bride so many times in the recent past, the Shamrock Lady was certainly overdue for a win. Owner Shirley McDonald had fond feelings about the Potomac River race site. It was here where her father's boats had won in 1935, 1937, and 1940 with Clell Perry and Dan Arena as drivers. With two of the fleet's toughest competitors( MISS U.S. and SMIRNOFF) temporarily off the circuit, most observers confidently predicted that come Sunday, NOTRE DAME would take the President's Cup trophy home. And so she did, but under well-known tragic circumstances.

Thirteen of the boats which appeared at Tampa made the trek to Washington. They were joined by the Detroit-based MISS DIXI COLA, handled by Fred Alter. Driving assignments from the previous week remained the same with Don Wilson continuing in his role as MISS BUDWEISER relief pilot. {Wilson had won the 1958 President's Cup with MISS U.S. I.}

Heats 1-A, 1-B, and 1-C were run on Saturday, June 18. The first-place finishers were Sterett in MISS CHRYSLER CREW, Manchester in NOTRE DAME, and Musson in MISS BARDAHL respectively. Twenty-four hours later, of the three Saturday winners, only Sterett remained alive. In notching Heat I-A, the auto-powered MISS CHRYSLER CREW fooled the skeptics that predicted she wouldn't be competitive. Sterett outran Mira Slovak and TAHOE MISS, 99.337 to 99.228. Bob Fendler was a distant third with WAYFARERS CLUB LADY, followed by MY GYPSY, while Jim McCormick and MISS MADISON failed to finish.

Manchester and NOTRE DAME lucked out with an easy draw in Heat 1-B. Rex checked in first at an unhurried 96.826, the slowest winning speed of the weekend. The lesson of the previous Sunday on the matter of total elapsed time had apparently made no impression on Manchester. A distant-running Jerry Schoenith and GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL finished second, ahead of MISS DIXI COLA, while Walt Kade and SAVAIR'S MIST failed to finish. The new MISS BARDAHL, running in competition for the first time, justified the faith of her owner, driver, and designer. The Green Dragon dominated section 1-C and posted the fastest heat (101.218) and lap (102.975) of the entire race. The crew had feared that the 8000-pound craft would be hard on engines. But this wasn't the case in Heat 1-C. MISS BARDAHL handled the Potomac River beautifully, an instant contender, just as TIGER TOO had been. The much-maligned cabover concept of Ron Jones all of a sudden had credibility.

Far behind the victorious Dragon, Wilson in MISS BUDWEISER and Warner Gardner in MISS LAPEER battled spectacularly for second place. Wilson took it, 95.238 to 95.026, while Norm Evans and $ BILL trailed in fourth. A crowd estimated at 40,000 turned out for the Sunday heats. Weather and water conditions were the closest thing to perfect. MISS MADISON had withdrawn. So, the rest of the field was consolidated into two sections of six boats each for Heats 2-A and 2-B.

Most people seemed upbeat after the successful series of Saturday heats. But Bob Carver, the dean of boat racing action photographers, felt strangely troubled. It was nothing that he could define. But something warned Carver that Sunday's racing would not go well. Although Heat 2-A turned out to be brilliant.

Wilson and MISS BUDWEISER held off a formidable challenge from Sterett and MISS CHRYSLER CREW in one of the more aggressive contests in Thunderboat history. Sterett went all out after Wilson for four dynamic laps as the two powerhouses tore around the 2 1/2-mile oval. These were a couple of champion Mid-West Limited drivers, showing the fans what Unlimited racing is all about. BUDWEISER maintained first-place throughout, but CHRYSLER CREW was only a heartbeat behind.

A mechanical malfunction eventually halted Sterett's valiant drive for the lead. MISS CHRYSLER CREW then faded to sixth and last. But Wilson knew that he'd been in a boat race. MISS BUDWEISER averaged 98.468 for the 15 miles. TAHOE MISS inherited second place at 95.759, followed by MISS LAPEER, $ BILL, MY GYPSY, and MISS CHRYSLER CREW in that order.

The victory in Heat 2-A brought BUDWEISER's point total to 700, compared to 600 for TAHOE MISS. In order to surpass MISS BUDWEISER, both MISS BARDAHL and NOTRE DAME would have to win Heat 2-B.

Once again, it was Musson versus Manchester, the Mantle and Maris of boat racing, intense rivals out on the race course; close personal friends off of it. Their families often fished and cruised together in the San Juans on their pleasure crafts. Their wives, Betty Musson and Evelyn Bardahl Manchester, were also friends.

It was at the President's Cup in 1959 where Ron Musson had qualified as an Unlimited driver. But despite Ron's many victories, the President's Cup was one award that had consistently eluded his grasp. The crowd, which included Musson's teenage son Robert, tensed in anticipation as the field for Heat 2-B took to the water. The starting gun fired. MISS BARDAHL and NOTRE DAME exited the first turn together and charged down the backstretch. Once again, the cabover creation of Ron Jones was holding its own in the acid test of competition, as Musson raced full-tilt with NOTRE DAME.

The boats rounded the second turn, near National Airport, and ran head-to-head back down the front straightaway toward the completion of lap one. Then, according to Jones, the MISS BARDAHL's propeller sheared off. This caused the prop shaft to twist into a corkscrew. The bow pitched skyward out of control. The Green Dragon slammed down hard and disintegrated, directly in front of the judges' stand.

The race announcer screamed, "It broke in two! The boat broke in two!" MISS BARDAHL had indeed broken cleanly just behind the cockpit.

Rex Manchester, unaware of the accident, continued racing down into the next turn. Only when NOTRE DAME entered the backstretch did Rex see the red flare, signaling postponement. Musson was found floating face down. The boat that had debuted so promisingly the day before was a shattered wreck with the cockpit area completely destroyed. This was 1966; not until 1986 would the F-16 fighter plane safety canopy, which likely could have saved Ron, be introduced into Unlimited racing.

Musson, age 38, was pronounced dead on arrival at a local hospital. The man, widely regarded by hydroplane historians as the all-time greatest Unlimited driver, belonged to the ages. Not since Bob Hayward in 1961 had death visited Thunderboat racing. It was the first President's Cup fatality since Billy Frietag, driver of MISS PHILADELPHIA, a Gold Cup Class boat, in 1931.

Ron Jones blamed the propeller for the crash, although MISS BARDAHL crew member Dixon Smith speculated that the boat may possibly have struck a log. There was no way to tell what had really happened, although everyone seemed to have a different opinion about it. But there could be no doubt of the end-result. The sport had lost its most prominent personality.

Betty Musson learned of her husband's passing from Evelyn Manchester. Rex had called from Washington. Evelyn went over to the Musson home to console Betty. It was there, a few hours later, that Evelyn Manchester would learn of her own husband's death.

Back at the race site, the MISS BARDAHL pit crew picked up the pieces, while chief referee Bill Newton ordered a rerun of Heat 2-B. But a distraught Jerry Schoenith would have no part of it and relinquished the seat in GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL to team manager Bill Cantrell.

The re-run of Heat 2-B was itself stopped. MISS DIXI COLA came to an abrupt halt while chasing NOTRE DAME and WAYFARERS CLUB LADY down the first backstretch. An overanxious course judge fired off a signal flare just as NOTRE DAME was about to finish lap one.

For the re-re-run, Cantrell pursuaded Schoenith to re-claim the GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL cockpit. Jerry went out and finished third behind NOTRE DAME andSAVAIR'S MIST and ahead of WAYFARERS CLUB LADY. Manchester posted a winning speed of 97.192 with the rest of the field far astern.

This brought NOTRE DAME's point total to 800. Manchester led MISS BUDWEISER by 100 points going into the Final Heat. But Rex's lead in total elapsed time was only two seconds.

The NOTRE DAME team, then, had two options. They could finish first in the Final and win the race outright. Or, they could finish second to Don Wilson and tie the MISS BUDWEISER on points. The winner would then be determined on the basis of total elapsed time. NOTRE DAME would have to finish within two seconds of MISS BUDWEISER in order to claim the President's Cup.

For the second week in a row, Manchester's slow performance in Heat One had come back to haunt him.

Joining NOTRE DAME and MISS BUDWEISER in the Final Heat were TAHOE MISS, GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL, MISS CHRYSLER CREW, and MISS LAPEER. From the standpoint of speed, it was anybody's boat race. Of the six finalists, CHRYSLER CREW had the fastest competition lap of the weekend at 102.506, followed by BUDWEISER at 101.351, NOTRE DAME at 100.671, TAHOE MISS at 100.446, GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL at 96.983, and MISS LAPEER at 96.567.

A voice over the public address system at the five-minute gun confirmed what was already obvious--that Ron Musson had died. There were tears in Wilson's eyes as he steered MISS BUDWEISER away from the dock. In the 1950s, Musson and Wilson had raced Limiteds together on the Mid-West Inboard circuit. Don vowed to "win the race for Ron."

Manchester sat motionlessly in the NOTRE DAME cockpit. The five-minute gun fired, and there was still no movement from Rex as the boat drifted aimlessly away from the dock. Finally, at the last possible moment, Manchester cranked the Rolls-Royce Merlin engine. NOTRE DAME roared to life and headed for the race course.

At the two previous Unlimited Class fatalities in the 1961 Silver Cup (Detroit) and the 1951 Gold Cup (Seattle), the races were cancelled and not resumed with the winners determined on the basis of points scored in preliminary heats. But drivers at the 1966 President's Cup all voted to continue racing, a decision that would later be criticized.

The boats came around for the start of the Final Heat with MISS BUDWEISER in lane one and NOTRE DAME in lane two. MISS CHRYSLER CREW, TAHOE MISS, and MISS LAPEER occupied lanes three, four, and five respectively with GALE'S ROOSTERTAIL failing to start. Wilson and Manchester crossed the starting line together and stayed together through the first turn. MISS BUDWEISER thundered down the backstretch in first place with NOTRE DAME close behind. Manchester found some extra fire in the engine room and pulled along side Wilson as the two neared the National Airport turn.

MISS BUDWEISER was running rock steady, but NOTRE DAME was starting to get out of attitude. Manchester, nevertheless, kept going at top speed. BUDWEISER backed off slightly to set up for the turn, but NOTRE DAME kept the power on in hopes of coming out of the turn first. NOTRE DAME became airborne, bounced on the left sponson, then on the right sponson, and then hooked uncontrollably into lane one, just as MISS BUDWEISER reached the same spot.

A photographer from LIFE MAGAZINE captured the moment of impact: an explosion of water and boat pieces with the lifeless body of Don Wilson hurtling through the air. MISS BUDWEISER's bow had speared the underside of NOTRE DAME. When the spray subsided, nothing remained of the two boats. Both had already sunk to the bottom of the Potomac.

< Back

Non Profit Tax Deductible IRS 501 C-3

A River Info Website - Copyright 1999-2003 River Info™ - All rights reserved - Site terms of use ( )